Veganism’s Journey Into Mainstream and the History of Moral Progress

Thinkers from Mahatma Gandhi to Schopenhauer to Mark Twain have observed that new ideas go through several phases: First they provoke laughter, then anger, and finally they are accepted as common sense.

Looking at society’s responses to new ethical movements, I feel we can draw parallels between historical examples and the current animal welfare and animal rights movements.

Does your gene sequence matter?

The history of moral progress is the history of society realising that certain attributes are not relevant to how a being should be morally treated. A classic example of this is race: some people were treated as morally important if they were of one race and less morally important if they were of another. Once you understand the invalidity of this proposition you can never go back. The idea that the information contained in your gene sequence should determine your moral status is patently absurd.

Should attributes of rationality and full self-awareness determine how we treat people or does being conscious and having the ability to suffer should be enough?

Another example of an attribute we used to think was morally relevant was mental ability. Up to the mid 20th Century, from America to Sweden, it was considered morally acceptable to perform medical experiments on mentally disabled people. The argument was that these beings lacked full rationality and full self-awareness, and that these attributes were essential to having a moral status, so it was okay to do what we liked with them. We now realise that the attributes of rationality and full self-awareness are not the be all and end all, and that simply being conscious and having the ability to suffer is the most important property.

The animal rights movement makes the same points that a being’s moral status is not determined by the information in their gene sequence, nor solely by their level of rationality.

Society isn’t always ethical or right

Society isn't always ethical or right: Up until not so long ago slavery used to be legal too.

Society isn’t always ethical or right: Up until not so long ago slavery used to be legal too.

It’s interesting to compare society’s initial response to the anti-slavery movement with the response that the animal rights movement now provokes. Members of the anti-slavery movement were thought of as “stark mad Abolitionists”. John F. Hume, writing of his experiences between 1830 and 1864, wrote of the Abolitionists, “Clowns in the circus made them the subjects of their jokes. Newspaper scribblers lampooned and libelled them.”

One pro-slavery argument, something that seems quite absurd from a modern perspective, was to claim that slavery brought happiness to its victims. Indeed, the pro-slavery lobby made the argument that slaves were “the happiest laboring class in the world.”

This all seems absurd now, but have we really learnt from history?

Jack OsheaCompare the quote above with that of “celebrity butcher” Jack O’Shea about foie gras (for those who don’t know, foie gras is produced by force feeding geese. Metal pipes are forced down their throats, sometimes tearing through their necks. The geese are then constantly force fed until it damages their liver, which is obviously a source of pain. The liver is then turned into a pate): “Stuffing a goose with grain is like stuffing me with Guinness, it has been totally blown out of proportion.” He then claimed: “[If] I had thought this was cruel or against the wishes of the animal there’s no way I would have sold the stuff.” Whilst the slave trade was far worse than the production of foie gras, the type of excuses made for these industries are comparable. I do believe the statements by Mr O’Shea will one day be recognised as being as absurd as the idea that slaves were happy. 

Veganism is moving forward

Western Vegetarianism is a much newer ethical movement than the abolitionist lobby or the campaign for civil rights for mentally disabled people. Veganism is newer still, and it is interesting to compare society’s response to these movements. It is my contention that Vegetarianism is moving into the phase where anger is one of the main responses, but Veganism is at an earlier stage of the process, and is more likely to provoke laughter. Obviously there is no clear boundary between the phases, certainly Vegetarianism still provokes laughter amongst a few, and equally Veganism can provoke anger amongst a few.

I need to be clear about what I mean by this. After all, there are parts of society that are now far more accepting of Vegetarianism. But equally, there are now parts of society that are made angrier than ever by the very existence of vegetarians. These responses are two sides of the same coin. They are the result of the fact that Vegetarianism is being taken more seriously – you have to be taken seriously to provoke anger. Indeed, studies such as the Do-Gooder Derogation study appear to show that those who are less sure of their pro-meat stance are the people who get angriest about vegetarians. In other words, the anger is prompted by a worry that they are beginning to lose the argument.

In the 1970s, vegetarians were seen as cranks, amusing wackos. They were portrayed in the way vegans are now being portrayed. This is why I think Veganism is the new Vegetarianism, and this is why I’m positive about being vegan. When you look at the inroads Vegetarianism has made into mainstream culture, it’s heartening to see Veganism going through the same process, albeit a step behind.

From an even more general perspective, it’s heartening to see the parallels between the animal rights movement and earlier ethical movements. Over the last hundred years, great gains have been made in the ideological battle for animal rights. The momentum is with us, and though it will be a long journey, it is a journey that has been travelled before, with great success.

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Writer & Reviewer

I became interested in animal rights while studying philosophy and ethics at university. I do a lot of different jobs, including writing films. I've had one movie released in cinemas and have another script currently under option. When people assume I'm a hippie because of my vegan diet I fly into an apoplectic rage. In my spare time I play rugby, and I'm an active supporter of the Iranian dissidents in exile.

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